Friday, August 5, 2011

Investigative Journalism Lives?

The New York Times continues to dig for information that most of us don't have the time or energy to unearth.  In February, the Times obtained internal EPA documents that may have shown inadequate treatment of wastewater from hydraulically fractured gas wells.  The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection responded quickly, asserting that river tests showed that the water downstream of the treatment plants was safe.  Senator Bob Casey requested more testing by the DEP and the EPA in response to the Times investigation.  The Times also reviewed "internal e-mails and documents" of "industry executives and federal officials" and concluded that energy companies may be exaggerating their natural gas production from hydraulically fractured wells.  The SEC has since subpoenaed energy companies to determine how they estimate production. Most recently, the Times has claimed that an old EPA report shows that fracturing has contaminated a water well, contrary to industry's assertions that there never has been a proven incident of contamination.  The article also worries that sealed settlements are covering up other contamination incidents.  The 1987 report cited by the Times may not have enough data to prove anything, but at minimum, it's nice to have easy electronic access to a 1987 EPA report to Congress.

Even if scientists, regulators, or industry leaders end up poking holes in some of the conclusions reached by the Times, it's reassuring to know that investigative journalism is not quite dead.  By digging up dusty documents (and new ones that no one has bothered to notice), the Times encourages responses from all sides.  It makes us think about the repercussions of our energy choices, keeps regulators on their toes, and pushes the debate forward. 

-Hannah Wiseman

August 5, 2011 | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Heads Up! The ABA is Proposing to Abolish its Standing Committee on Environmental Law

For those of you active in the American Bar Association or state bar associations, you might be interested in knowing that the ABA House of Delegates will vote on a Resolution (Resolution 11-6) that would abolish the ABA Standing Committee on Environmental Law (SCEL) at its Annual Meeting next Monday. 

Resolution 11-6 would abolish SCEL and merge its functions into the Section on Environment, Energy and Resources (SEER).  SEER's primary mission, however, is to serve the day-to-day needs of its members, which tend to be lawyers practicing full-time in its fields.  SCEL’s role has been to coordinate the work of 70 different ABA committees scattered throughout numerous ABA sections and draw attention to major environmental law issues that are coming but are not yet on practitioners’ screen.  Notably, many legal academics have served on SCEL since its establishment in 1975.  Presently, Edith Brown Weiss (Georgetown) is the Chair of SCEL, and Rebecca Bratspies (CUNY), Fred Cheever (Denver), Ann Powers (Pace) and Stephanie Tai (Wisconsin) are among its 11 members.  Moreover, I serve as a liaison to SCEL from the Section of State and Local Government Law, and Joe Dellapenna (Villanova) and Cynthia Drew (Miami) serve as liaisons from the Section of International Law and the Section of Administrative Law & Regulatory Practice, respectively.

Importantly, the ABA states that the Resolution is being put forth for financial and budgeting reasons, but it hasn’t produced any findings or conclusions on the financial impact of SCEL.  From the information I have, SCEL is actually revenue-positive. Its programming produces profits to support its operations, and its staff supports other ABA functions such that no financial savings would be achieved by the Resolution.   

If you would like to express yourself in the debate about the abolishment of SCEL, the best way to do so at this point is to make contact with those who will vote on the Resolution.  Of the 566 voting members of the ABA House of Delegates, major groups include 230 State Bar Association Delegates, 81 Local Bar Association Delegates, and 72 representatives of ABA Sections and Divisions.  Contacting your State Bar might be a good bet.  For example, the Colorado State Bar lists its delegates here, and other bar association may do the same.  Also, if you are a member of an ABA Section, you could contact your Section leaders.  

- Lesley McAllister

August 3, 2011 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Another Threat to Caribbean Reefs

I had the privilege of scuba diving in Bonaire (part of Holland, off the coast of Venezuela) last week. The last time I had been there was in 2004, and I wondered if I might see evidence on the coral reef of warming or acidifying waters.  I found that neither my memory nor my expertise was adequate to claim witness to such changes, but I did learn about another threat:  the invasive lionfish.  

Lionfish are a wonder to see (below), but pose great danger to native fish populations.  Native to the Pacific, lionfish supposedly arrived to the Caribbean in 1992 when a privately-owned aquarium in Florida’s Biscayne Bay was shattered by Hurricane Andrew.   The first lionfish sighting in Bonaire was in 2009, and they are now prevalent throughout the Caribbean.  With a voracious appetite for other fish, a high rate of reproduction, and no known predators, they are viewed as an enemy and an epidemic.   

In an interesting way, recreational scuba divers who vacation in Bonaire are being recruited to help control the lionfish population.  Before you dive, you receive an orientation that includes information about the problem.  You are instructed to mark the spot where you see a lionfish by attaching a small flag to a nearby rock.  You then report the sighting, and locals who are specifically trained as lionfish “eliminators” are called in to find it and make the kill. Although fishing with spear guns had been prohibited for decades in Bonaire, it was legalized in 2010 for the killing of lionfish.  Also, you – a tourist – can get in on the spear gun action yourself if you take a special day-long course.  So, if you dive and your inner hunter needs an outlet, consider a trip to Bonaire!

- Lesley McAllister


August 2, 2011 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, July 31, 2011

"The world consumes 1 million plastic shopping bags every minute"....

Plastic bags
...that is a lot of plastic.  1.44 billion plastic bags a day, 525 billion plastic bags a year. You get the idea.  A few recent articles/blogs have highlighted the copious quantity of plastic bags used/consumed worldwide, and in the U.S. in particular, and the numbers are certainly astounding. American consumers use approximately 102 billion plastic shopping bags a year. 

Plastic waste causes a variety of harms, of course, killing wildlifelittering our nations landscapes and waterways, clogging sewers, containing harmful chemicals that disrupt endocrine regulators related to sexual function, and even consuming precious non-renewable resources that could be put to a variety of other uses.  On this latter point, in one year's time China reduced its plastic bag use by two-thirds, which saves the equivalent of 11.7 million barrels of oil.  Though this is only a little more than half of the number of barrels of oil consumed in the U.S. on a daily basis, it is hardly the highest and best use of a non-renewable resource (even when considering plastic vs. plastic trade-offs, as this amount of oil could be used to manufacture a great quantity of plastic-based hospital implements, for example, that are in short supply in the developing world). Plastic bags are also notoriously difficult to recycle, with only 9% being recycled.

The articles/blogs highlighted above take particular issue with efforts of the plastic industry to block plastic bag bans in the U.S., despite the fact that a number of countries worldwide have instituted strong anti-plastic bag policies and the United Nations Environment Programme recently declared that "[t]here is simply zero justification for Wearers of plastic bags manufacturing them anymore, anywhere." These industries have used primarily scare tactics about the supposed dangers of alternative reusable or paper bags and even lawsuits aimed at preventing anti-plastic bag policies.

Even so, a variety of U.S. communities have taken aim at plastic bags. San Francisco was the first American city to ban them, and Washington, D.C. has imposed a five-cent fee per bag, resulting in a drop from 22.5 million bags per month to 3 million per month. Just this month the city of Portland banned them completely (with a few caveats). For some interesting insights supporting these bans from a plastic-bag-ban skeptic, see here.

I first became interested in the problems created by plastic consumption/disposal after Plastic Polymers watching "Toxic Garbage Island," a documentary about the Pacific Ocean gyre containing an amount of plastic and other trash equal to the size of Texas (not an actual island, but rather a diffused accumulation of plastic broken down into constituent parts).  As the documentary describes, it's not a plastic bag that you always find in the gyre, but rather every piece of a plastic bag broken down into its fundamental polymers - fundamentally altering the chemical make-up of the world's oceans (already being altered by a variety of other drivers). 

Of course, the part of the documentary that impacted me the most was the statement (paraphrasing) "When you go to Subway, how long do you use the plastic bag? Five seconds? Five minutes?" So just keep "one million plastic bags a minute" in your mind the next time you are choosing your method of carrying your sandwich out of the shop.  The paper its already wrapped in works very nicely, leaving you only to worry about all the preservatives in your sandwich (we just can't win them all I suppose).

- Blake Hudson

July 31, 2011 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)